Tracking the Elusive Western Shoe Tree
A recklessly picaresque, highly philosophical, gloriously unmapped road trip in search of secret places you'll have to find yourself
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
In the beginning, my quest for shoe trees—otherwise normal trees into which people have taken to throwing shoes—was less an exercise in running down something fresh (for I had never heard of such things until my friend Mary Ann told me about them) than in running from something stale. It had been a mild, puling winter in Missoula, Montana, where I live, and its incessant lack of drama had become unbearable. The day I headed out, the place was in an entr’acte: homicide season just ending, tycoon season many weeks off. I was seriously bored with the mumpy cloud-cover, with the dusty, wormholed snowbanks that lingered like they were fighting extradition, and especially with the usual cast of dozens: failing llama ranchers, pan-flute buskers, foaming nihilists, soccer trash, microbrew snobs, emu speculators, and optometrists down from Lethbridge looking to abuse our speed limits.
So off I went. It was a tolerably blithe journey, though not without small perils. Had I traveled in a straight line, I would have made it to Miami. Instead, I described a giant loop, from Montana through Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho again, and back to Montana. For a while I was close enough to Wyoming to see it. I went something like 3,200 miles— all but 120 of them on two-lanes.
At times I traveled fast as a scalded ape; at others, slow as a mule cart. I climbed serpentine grades, descended their glassy far sides, crossed lonely, ancient basins. I bucked winds that hit like sacks of late mail, rolled past church marquees reading God Is Still on the Throne, motel marquees touting Horse Corrals and Direct Dial Phones, bar plaques reading Free Beer Tomorrow, rest room signs reading Quiet! Genius at Work, and mini-mart signs reading I Woke Up This Morning with One Nerve Left and Damned but You Just Got on It.
The West, I feel, is a forthright and humorous land.
I hit a three wood at a golf course with no grass. I spoke with strangers who determined me crazy, others who found me admirable and wise. A man offered to sell me a town. Another asked why, if runaway children’s pictures were on milk cartons, runaway trucks’ weren’t on oil cans. Ha ha ha, he said, poking me hard in the chest.
I broke calf-deep into a thin-iced highland fresh. I tore my wrist deep on bramble; ruined my sharpest chinos slipping down a gulch wall of gumbo. Once, screaming for unspecific joy and rattling east at 85 per, I lost a baseball cap out the car window.
I gave liars credit and disbelieved truth-tellers. I crosshatched counties large as states in states large as countries. I followed scars posing as roads and faded tracks not shown on any map yet drawn. I passed a school whose teams are nicknamed the Tarantulas.
I drove into a sunset so glorious I thought God deserved a raise.
Mary Ann had shown me photos of shoe trees. She’s an artist. She thought shoe trees interesting. Populist objects d’art. Some damn thing.
Claptrap, I said. You’re twisted, I said. Lay off the cadmium yellow, I said.
To me the trees were jimcracked, disheveled, tacky. Especially tacky, even by the standards of the intermountain West—America’s fertile crescent of “‘n’ Things” shops, wooden lawn whirligigs, and teenage blond homeys in shants, copping attitude in Orem.
And nothing—not the bracing elixir of the open road nor my up-close encounters with the trees themselves—changed that opinion. But an odd thing happened: I became fond of the ugly buggers. And very protective of them. So, though I may drop the odd hint, I’m not going to reveal their locations. Partly it’s because I feel a profound sadness when reading accounts by recently-returned-from-somewhere tattletales, accounts that turn “new” into “used,” and “untrammeled” into “overrun.” We seek adventure, novelty, but we demand they be acquired efficiently. We are, many of us, too busy or unwilling to search things out, get lost, fail. Thanks in part to magazines like this one, things have become too easy. The world’s nooks and crannies, and the people and things occupying those nooks and crannies, it seems to me, are too accessible, and the coin of happenstance, of serendipity, has become debased.
The West, I feel, is a forthright and humorous land.
Shoe trees grow in nondescript, desperate land—“starvation places,” as one rancher told me. No one, best as I can tell, owns shoe trees, or wants to, particularly. They are, as yet, mercifully unexploited. There are no shoe tree bumper stickers, or coffee mugs, or T-shirts, or baseball caps. They aren’t historical landmarks. They aren’t touted by chambers of commerce or tourist boards. There aren’t shoe tree chat groups. Or shoe tree clubs. Or shoe tree lobbyists. There isn’t a National Shoe Tree Day or a Save the Shoe Trees movement. Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t have a Shoe Tree flavor. There aren’t, as far as I know, any rock-and-roll bands named Shoe Tree. Shoe trees aren’t on maps or billboards or Dateline NBC or National Public Radio. There aren’t ads for Shoe Tree Expeditions at the back of this magazine. Or lists of the ten best shoe trees. There aren’t shoe tree experts.
Shoe trees aren’t metaphors. They aren’t even similes: They couldn’t bear the weight. They are vulnerable, fragile, humble, silly, ungrand things. They don’t matter a whit. What a relief.
The one activity shoe trees encourage—throwing shoes into them—is, at most, little more than a spontaneous and giggly one, a minor, fleeting pleasure: like blowing bubbles, making armpit fart noises, calling people up to ask if they have Prince Albert in a can, carving pumpkins, or spinning in place and getting so dizzy you tell your friends you’re gonna barf and they all believe you and run away shrieking. There the shoe trees stand: dippy and pure; curiosities; daisies, not orchids. The best ways to find a shoe tree are luck, accident, or word of mouth. They are best happened-by. Side-glanced, not studied. Discovered, not mapped. Stumbled on—perhaps with a little help, as I got—not guided to.
Mary Ann’s shoe tree directions were vague—off, at times, by a couple of states. She had lied to me, she confessed later. It was for my own good, she said. She had been right. It was thrilling to find something the old-fashioned way, to track it down, to follow my nose and ears and eyes. To, you know, explore.
And so, for your own good...Fly blind, amigos.
I found three shoe trees: a juniper and two cottonwoods.
I also found the sites of two former shoe trees felled by persons unknown but probably drunk. One chainsawed stump was four and a half feet tall, leading to speculation that the vandal had been “either quite tall or standing on something like the back of a pickup.” I didn’t find three other shoe trees people swore existed sure as dogs bark. I heard of a shoe tree two mountain ranges west, somewhere along the redwood-and-hash-pipe stretch of the California coast. I didn’t investigate, as my source had proven himself a fabulist.
I met a guy who told me they don't make shoe trees like they used to.
Two of the trees held a couple of hundred pairs of shoes each. The third, a 90-foot-tall cottonwood, held about 700 pairs. Another few hundred lay by its foot. Shoe trees rarely contain single shoes—those are best found in borrow pits and cineplex parking lots. People commonly tie tree-shoes together with laces, but most anything will do: twine, rope, wire, lanyard. I saw clogs on a fan belt, Converse low-cuts on a leather belt, and cowboy boots tied through the backstraps to a bicycle chain.
This brings up the sole ecological downside to shoe trees—besides their breathtaking tawdriness. God, as best we know, did not intend trees to bear the extra weight of hundreds of shoes—especially snow-filled or rain-soggy shoes. Heavy-with-shoes tree branches snap prematurely. When wind catches shoes, they sway, and laces, wire, rope, and fan belts act like slow saw blades. All those shoes under the big cottonwood were still attached to three snapped branches—each big around as my shoulder at their base.
Most shoes in trees are athletic shoes. Call it 80 percent. Most are white. Most are low-tops. All those soles look funny from below: intricate as Beardsley illustrations, earnest as Methodists.
Then come boots—work, hiking, cowboy, and rubber. Then sandals of all sorts; then thongs, clogs, pumps, loafers, oxfords, baby shoes, and desert boots. Maybe brogans, but I’m not sure what they look like. I saw cleats, track spikes, wedding and prom-fancy pumps, reef walkers, scrubs, ballet slippers, figure skates, and one pair of Uggs. In one tree hung a pair of carefully oiled and well broken-in S.H.A.R.K. Ruggers; in another, a pair of pristine Air Jordans. I saw a pair of expensive loafers and dreamed myself, ineffably handsome, wearing them and sipping grappa at Caffe Sotto Il Mare. In that big cottonwood hung a pair of lie-to-me red high heels. Next to those was a pair of screamin’ green Grinch slippers, nestled on a branch like Alice’s caterpillar.
Humans can’t help but accessorize. I saw two foot-tall stuffed Santas in branches, a headless pink flamingo, a broken ski, a Colorado Rockies baseball cap, a can of Bud hanging from its plastic collar, a bicycle-wheel rim, two pairs of sunglasses, a deer tibia, a butane lighter tied to a sock, and a bra large enough for a whole house of Alpha Phis. I was told of a prosthetic leg. Under the big cottonwood were two car tires and a busted-in microwave oven. I don't think they had been thrown into the tree. In general, though, shoes in shoe trees outnumber non-shoes like spaghetti outnumber meatballs.
The one activity shoe trees encourage—throwing shoes into them—is, at most, little more than a spontaneous and giggly one, a minor, fleeting pleasure: like blowing bubbles, making armpit fart noises, calling people up to ask if they have Prince Albert in a can.
When a person pokes around the shoe-tree world, he learns of many not-quite shoe trees. For example, the handsome live oak near Chico, California, freckled with bright twists of yarn at Christmas; pie-size paper hearts on Valentine's Day; shamrocks and clay pipes on St. Patrick’s Day; flags on the Fourth; and pumpkins and cornucopias on Thanksgiving.
Cottonwoods, used in sun-dance ceremonies, thick with bright-cloth prayer bundles of tobacco.
Hard-hat trees. The bra-and-bead trees along Crested Butte’s Keystone, East River, and Painter Boy lifts. The bra tree at Vail’s China Bowl, which some people believe to be the granddaddy of them all. The bra tree at Bob’s Biker Bar, 20 miles east of Marlow, Oklahoma, which many of Bob’s customers believe to be the granddaddy of them all. The eucalyptus that once stood at the corner of Orange and Rosemont in La Crescenta, California, and held a pair of white low-top Jack Purcells owned by a seventh-grader and thrown there by Kilmer Sheehy, an eighth-grader, over the seventh-grader's protests, one autumn Friday in 1960, about 3:45 p.m. All those shoes draped over urban power lines. Some believe these mark gang turf, drug bazaars, or all-purpose diabolic vortices. In truth, they are the handiwork of Kilmer Sheehy copycats.
The less people know about something, the more adamant their opinions. Shoe trees? No one knows squat.
Sidney, a guy in a café east of Sacramento, says his father remembered one tree as a kid. Sidney's 40; his father’s dead. Hell, it was always there. It was planted by road builders in the thirties for fun.
It was a primitive rest area.
It was planted in 1937.
A tow-truck driver planted it in the 1940s for no particular reason. He kept a jug with him, watered the tree whenever he passed by on a job.
The Civilian Conservation Corps planted a half-dozen trees along a long hot stretch, for shade and variety. All but the one died of disease and thirst.
It just grew, the seeds blown in on God’s breath.
It was six feet tall in 1955.
It was yea tall when Pete was ten. Pete is older than ice. Yea is slightly taller than whoever is speaking’s head.
It was yea wide in 1960. Yea is slightly wider than whoever is speaking’s shoulders.
A young boy feeling impish during a roadside stop with his family threw the first shoes.
A tramp, in the 1950s, got angry at his pinching, worn-out boots and threw them.
Lightning struck a biker. People had to restart his heart three times, and the last one took. The biker threw his boots into the tree to honor the gods.
Once, a couple, driving somewhere to get married, fought. She pitched a fit, threw his shoes in the tree.
They were already married.
He threw her shoes.
The couple was from Oregon.
They were from Colorado.
They were headed to California.
They were headed to Oregon.
They were married in Nevada.
They were married in Oregon.
Nevada, for the love of Mike!
I spent my first night out in Burns, Oregon. I found my first shoe tree two days later. I found the second shoe tree a day after that, and the third one three days after that.
Only one of the dozen people I asked in Burns had ever heard of shoe trees—a truck driver who thought they had something to do with the Burning Man festival. A girl at a grocery store told me she had never been to Lakeview, the next town south, but she knew how to get there: “Drive 30 miles and turn left.”
All in all, I talked to 100 or so people. Eight knew of the trees, but only three admitted to having thrown shoes in them. They did it “Because,” “Because,” and “Because it’s cool, because I wonder what someone who doesn't know the tree is there says when they see it at first. Probably, ‘What the crap!’”
The first tree was a cottonwood in a horizon-huge scoop of high desert. The tree was behind a shallow turnout, beside the cinder-block shell of a former roadhouse a mile south of a former town and 40 miles south of a 113-mile stretch of highway along which I met all of six cars and three trucks. It was a disappointment: a tree with shoes in it. Period.
The day was sunless, bitter, snow-spitting. Other trees were visible only through binoculars. Using shoelaces, I tied together a pair of broken-down Flojos—one of three pairs of thongs I had brought for throwing purposes. I drew back 20 feet from the trunk, swung my arm in big underhand arcs, and let fly, like I was lobbing a new paintbrush to someone up a real tall ladder. The shoes rose, fell. Slipped past one branch; caught the next.Well, I thought. There we are.
I hadn’t said, “What the crap!” on spying the tree, and now, squinting eyes watering from the wind, the only person in the world, staring at some shoes I had sacrificed in a tree, I didn’t feel particularly cool. I didn’t feel particularly anything. It beat hitting a three-point wastebasket jumper, for sure, but it didn’t hold a candle to, say, catching ten consecutive green lights driving someplace fun.
I left. Then, and I don’t know why, truly, I turned around and drove back. I hitched up a brown pair of thongs I had loathed since the day I bought them. I tried an overhead helicopter spin. Brought heat.
I must say, those dudes flew. They landed four branches above the Flojos on the south side of the tree.
I started laughing out loud. I couldn’t help it.
The less people know about something, the more adamant their opinions. Shoe trees? No one knows squat.
The second tree was a juniper. You can have it. Cottonwoods are shaggy, friendly messes—wrinkled, striated pigpens. Rumpoles of the Prairie.
Junipers are tidy, organized, presentable. Junipers remind me of student body presidents. Shoes in junipers remind me of student body presidents wearing weekend nose rings.
My third shoe tree—that other big cottonwood I told you about—was one of only six trees of any kind along a 105-mile stretch of highway. By then I was far south and far east of the first tree, but the world remained gray, windy, and bitter. Furious storms raged in the distant, lonely, world-class mountains.
From a quarter-mile, the tree looked healthy, full-leaved, normal. From 100 yards the leaves had become shoes and the tree had become hideous. At 20 yards “hideous” had become serious understatement.
Great pear-shaped clumps of shoes hung everywhere—like fruit grown on a planet from which no one returns—or lay on branches, piled thick, skinless and alien, like swarms of bats, quiverings of beetles, Medusas of deep-cave snakes. They were no longer shoes, but hulks: discolored, bloated, sole-holed, heel-less. Their foxed tongues were stiff and bent as limbs of battlefield dead.
It was like the detritus of an intergalactic breeding scheme gone terribly wrong, and the creatures hatched—the spores, the cysty underbelly dwellers, the tumors, the buboes—were the sort that attached themselves to suck life.
I was seriously spooked. I drove hard to the nearest town, a stalled-out, wary place, and spent the night. I returned to the tree the next day. The sky had cleared, but the tree was no less scrofulous, just more familiar.
I got out my last pair of thongs. The ladder-toss, from about 20 feet away, failed to reach even the lowest branches and landed at my feet.
I helicopter-spun. Gained some height, not enough distance. The shoes fell into a five-foot-deep gulch, on top of an all-weather steel-belted radial.
I retrieved them and circled the tree. Stalked it. Threw sand to gauge the wind. Tried something new: a bodacious windmill, worthy of a cartoon pitcher in the game of his life.
Up and away those sweatshop flip-flops went. Past dun Birkenstocks, oxblood Rockports, Ponys, Asics, Pumas, Tecnicas, Sauconys. Past the Grinch slippers and the World’s Biggest Bra. Past sturdy Reeboks and stately New Balances. Past even a pair of heavy logging boots Paul Bunyan himself must have tossed. Finally, beyond the aerie of a pair of haughty Nikes. Twisting like porpoises, they defied, then succumbed to, gravity.
Nothing but branch.
About then a big guy pulled up in a big pickup. Ugly son of a pup, he said, pointing his chin at the tree.
Yeah, he had some shoes up there somewheres from a long ways back. He ranched nearby. Come back in a few months, he said. His fiancée, after the wedding, was gonna nail her dress and shoes to the trunk facing the highway. Just for the hell of it.
That, he kidded me not, was gonna bring a few vehicles to a screeching g.d. halt.
There was something a little too aggressively hearty about the big guy. Suddenly I was road-weary. I’d had my fill of desolation. I was—like that!—ready to get back home. If I balled the jack I could be there in two days. I picked up a fallen shoe-tree branch for Mary Ann, threw it in the trunk, started the car, and floored it east, kicking grit behind me like Broderick Crawford's Buick.